Costa Rica has been on my shortlist for a very long time, so I jumped at the chance to visit in October. I had heard dozens of remarkable stories about the diverse landscapes, the differences between the Pacific and Caribbean coasts, the tropical birdlife and, of course, the iconic smiling sloths.

I am delighted to report that I was not disappointed in the slightest. From suspension bridges with volcano views to glamping on private island, Costa Rica is a country that keeps on giving. It has something for everyone, from honeymooners to self-drivers and thrill seekers to animal lovers.

Explore Isla Chiquita in Costa Rica | Travel Nation

There is enough in Costa Rica to keep you busy for weeks, so picking the best stops for your holiday is crucial. Here is a handful of my top places to visit in Costa Rica for a memorable and wildlife-packed trip.

1. Tortuguero National Park

Hugging the Caribbean coast, Tortuguero National Park is very distinct from the rest of Costa Rica. It only takes a couple of hours by bus to reach Tortuguero from the capital, San Jose, and we stopped for lunch in Guapiles, part of the banana-growing region.

Costa Rican food may be simple, but it is tasty. The staple is rice and beans (so expect to eat lots of these throughout your trip!) usually served with meat or fish. There is always salad and fresh fruit available. Most importantly, there is hot sauce, which really livens up the rice and beans!

Before we have even finished lunch, I spotted my first sloth sleeping in a tree. Magic! I also saw a fascinatingly brightly coloured frog named the ‘Blue Jeans Frog’ because the underside of its tiny legs is royal blue, a stark contrast to its bright red body.

See sleepy sloths in Costa Rica | Travel Nation

From Guapiles, it was another short drive to the river. To reach Tortuguero, we took a small motorboat along a network of jungle rivers and canals. The wildlife spotting started the second climbed into the boat, and we saw crocodiles, iguanas, and vultures on the way to the lodge.

If you’re short on time, you can also consider flying in, which will both save you time and give you another perspective of this unique ecosystem.

Relax at Pachira Lodge, Costa Rica | Photo credit: Pachira Lodge

I stayed at Pachira Lodge Hotel. It is a simple, rustic resort that is very comfortable. There’s a lovely turtle-shaped pool area to relax around during your free time and you’ll constantly spots exotic animal on the property (this is a running theme throughout Costa Rica). The early morning howler monkey calls certainly make for a different type of alarm clock!

A stay at Pachira Lodge includes a packed programme of wildlife activities, along with all meals. That’s the beauty of it. While I was staying at the lodge, I took a jungle walk, a canal tour and visited Tortuguero Village, which really does have that laid-back Caribbean vibe.

Meet the locals in Tortuguero Village | Travel Nation

The main draw of Tortuguero is, however, the sea turtles. Tortuguero translates to ‘Region of Turtles’ and throughout the green months (July – September), green turtles come in their droves. I visited out of season, and I was warned that I may not see any turtles during my trip. 

Knowing the risks, I still would have kicked myself had I not tried my luck, so I set off to spot them with my fingers crossed. I am so pleased I did, as this became the standout experience of my whole trip.

Not only did I spot a couple of these prehistoric animals laying their eggs in a trance-like state, but I also suddenly saw over 100 babies hatching from the sand like popping corn! I stood as still as could be and watched in awe as these beautiful hatchlings made their way towards the water, again drawn by some greater power. Spectacular.

See green turtles hatching in Tortuguero | Travel Nation

2. Arenal and La Fortuna

La Fortuna, in the foothills of Arenal Volcano, is a great stop for animal lovers and adrenaline junkies alike. If you’re looking for a raised pulse, there are endless options on offer, from white water rafting to canyoning, zorbing, and ziplining. Between hair-raising activities, you can take gentler walks to admire the flora and fauna around the resorts. It would be extremely easy to spend a few days here.

Visit Arenal in Costa Rica | Travel Nation

My personal highlights were the Mistico Arenal Hanging Bridges and a Sloth Quest tour. Although you can both do these things on your own, I would highly recommend a local guide. They are so knowledgeable about the country, plants, and wildlife, that they are invaluable. They also seem to be eagle-eyed. I, for one, would never have seen the family of coati, three toucans or the SEVEN sloths, without our guide.

See smiling three-toed sloths in Costa Rica | Travel Nation

At the end of each day, whether you are out hiking or throwing yourself down a hill in a massive bouncy ball, you can relax in a geothermal pool. The saying ‘there must be something in the water’ could have been created for this place. It is said that these pools can help with muscular aches and pains, detox skin, improve circulation and increase body metabolism.

I can’t be certain of any of this but after a long and exhilarating day, I know that they made me feel very relaxed indeed! Along with the assistance of one or two Costa Rican rums, I slept like a baby.

Scott drinking cocktails in Costa Rica | Travel Nation

3. Isla Chiquita

This place is quite an experience, and it certainly isn’t for everyone. However, if you’re looking for a bit of adventure and trying to get off the beaten track this, Glamping Hotel Island resort is one-of-a-kind.

Tucked away just off the Nicoya Peninsula, this island offers a glamping experience like no other. The ‘tents’ are more like materialled hotel rooms with plunge pools and views across the water to the mainland.

Explore Isla Chiquita, Costa Rica | Travel Nation

There are walks and uninterrupted vistas like nowhere else, with mile upon mile of beach that meets the rainforest. Here, you can try lots of water-based activities, such as kayaking, stand-up paddle-boarding, snorkelling, fishing, and whale watching (seasonal from August to October).

Their signature activity, called ‘Nightscapes: Bioluminescence and Sea Life’, is a night-time boat trip around the island to spot wildlife and see the natural phenomenon of water glistening like stars. It is quite the experience.

The gorgeous setting of Isla Chiquita | Travel Nation

4. Parque Nacional Manuel Antonio

Rich with wildlife, Manuel Antonio is a lovely spot for relaxing after an adventurous fortnight exploring this incredible country. For a country that covers just 0.03% of the earth’s surface, Costa Rica contains nearly 6% of the world’s biodiversity, and this is showcased clearly in Manuel Antonio.

Not only does Manuel Antonio have white-sand beaches, coral reefs, and rugged rainforests, but it also is renowned for its rich diversity of wildlife and tropical plants. From capuchins and three-toed sloths to an array of crabs, frogs, creepy crawlies, and hundreds of birds, it’s a natural paradise.

Spot wildlife in Manuel Antonio National Park | Travel Nation

I would highly recommend two days within the Manuel Antonio National Park and, on the first, I advise getting a guide. Our guided tour was just brilliant. We set off early to beat the crowds, which was well worth it because it felt like we had the park to ourselves. The beaches were empty first thing in the morning and the early start gave us time to scour the rainforest for wildlife without feeling rushed by other groups.

On the second day, I recommend exploring the park under your own steam. This way you can enjoy the wildlife at your own pace and then relax on the beach for as long as you like. When you’re finished for the day, you’ll find shuttle buses or local taxis waiting to take you back to your resort.

Explore Manuel Antonio National Park | Travel Nation

Final thoughts about Costa Rica

One last thing I want to note again is the food, because, for me, the food is an integral part of any travel experience. As I mentioned earlier, I had heard rumblings of the Costa Rican cuisine being uninspiring. However, I must give credit to the resorts and bust the myth. Throughout my trip, I ate juicy steaks, exceptional seafood, and delicious wine.

The customer service in Costa Rica is second to none. After a troublesome time, due to COVID, the Costa Ricans cannot wait to get tourists back and I felt genuinely welcome in every destination. Every guide I met was informative and friendly. They couldn’t do enough to help.

Scott in Manuel Antonio National Park | Travel Nation

Ready to plan a trip to Costa Rica?

Whether you want to hire a 4x4 or plan a fully guided experience for any occasion, Costa Rica is every bit as incredible as you may have heard. Pura Vida! We can put together tailor-made Costa Rica holidays of all shapes and sizes, so simply get in touch by calling 01273 320580 or send us a quote request by email.

Jim in Costa Rica | Travel Nation

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